The American Civil Liberties Union, whose advocacy on reproductive rights is of more than a half-century vintage, recently tweeted its alarm about the precarious state of legal abortion:
“Abortion bans disproportionately harm: Black Indigenous and other people of color. The L.G.B.T.Q. community. Immigrants. Young people. Those working to make ends meet. People with disabilities. Protecting abortion access is an urgent matter of racial and economic justice.”
This tweet encompassed so much and so many and yet neglected to mention a relevant demographic: women.
This was not an oversight, nor was it peculiar to the language favored by the A.C.L.U. Language has been changing fast, even as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn a constitutional guarantee to abortion rights and progressives face the task of spearheading opposition.
From Planned Parenthood to NARAL Pro-Choice America to the American Medical Association to city and state health departments and younger activists, the word “women” has in a matter of a few years appeared far less in talk of abortion and pregnancy.
Care for Breastfeeding People,” the governor of New York issued guidance on partners accompanying “birthing people” during Covid, and city and some state health departments offer “people who are pregnant” advice on “chestfeeding.”
The Cleveland Clinic, a well-known nonprofit hospital, posed a question on its website: “Who has a vagina?” Its answer begins, “People who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) have vaginas.” The American Cancer Society website recommends cancer screenings for “people with a cervix.”
an editorial for a British medical journal in which she noted the pressure for clinicians in Britain, where questions of gender are no less charged, to use phrases such as “human milk” rather than “breast milk.” She cautioned they risked losing a larger audience.
“If the aim is to maximize respect for every person’s sense of self, it must follow that female patients who simply understand themselves as women cannot either be expected to ‘go along silently with language in which they do not exist,’” she wrote, quoting advocates of gender-neutral language.
For those who fight in the trenches of reproductive politics, the surprise is that a turn to gender-neutral language surprises. Louise Melling, a deputy legal director for the A.C.L.U., noted that not long ago male pronouns and terms such as “mankind” were considered sufficient to cover all women. Language is a powerful instrument, she said, and helps to determine political consciousness.